404 Error: What Page Not Found Means & How to Handle It

“404, Page Not Found” is a response status code that most web users would have encountered while browsing an URL on any Website in the Internet. “404” is the HTTP Error Code and “Not Found” is the HTTP 404 Error Message as specified in HTTP 404 Error Specification. This means that the browser was able to establish a connection to the Website but the web server could not find the requested page identified by the URL on the Website. The URL requests can be made by either a human visitor to the website, via the browser, or any bot including the search engine bots. The Server returns Error 404 when it cannot find the requested resource.

What causes a 404 Error?

The “Error 404 Page Not found” may be caused due to a variety of reasons. Some of the most common causes for 404 Errors are listed below.

Page Moved or Deleted – This may happen when a page has been deleted or when the page has been moved to another URL. This causes the original URL to return this error, when requested.

URL changed(Permalink structure changed or Slug name changed) – In WordPress, a 404 Error might occur when you change the permalink structure or change the Post Name which is otherwise known as Slug of the URL. A “404, Page Not Found” Error might also occur when the URL of a CSS or Javascript file, loaded by a WordPress plugin or theme, is no longer available, due to such plugin or theme having been deactivated.

The other common reasons for 404 Errors are when an external website links to a page on your Website, whose URL has changed. Search Engine bots or other bots that crawl the page on the external website or Domain will encounter these broken links pointing to the URL of the page that no longer exists on your website. The bots will thus receive this 404 Error status code, when it tries to crawl the Dead URL on your website.

Domain Migration – This is another common cause of 404 Errors. When you change the content of your website from one domain to another domain and if you had not set up redirections properly, HTTP 404 Errors might be encountered by users navigating to URLs of pages on your old domain.

HTTP to HTTPs migration – When you move your website from HTTP to HTTPS and if you have not set up the redirection properly, users or bots navigating to the HTTP URLs might receive a 404 Error Code.

Favicon 404 Error – If you have a rel=”icon” HTML link tag in the Page Head Section i.e. within <head></head> tags, but do not have a favicon file in the location specified by the href attribute of such HTML link tag, then a favicon 404 Error is generated. It is always safe to have the favicon in the location specified by the rel=”icon” HTML link tag and also in the root directory of the website. This is because some browsers like Internet Explorer, used its own specification like rel=”shortcut icon” for the favicon lookup. If it is not used, then the browser would by default look at the site root for the favicon. If for some reason, favicon is not present in either of the locations, then a 404 is generated for the favicon request. Every browser makes a request for a favicon, while loading any page of any Website in the browser. If the favicon is not present and the harmful “favicon.ico not found Error” is generated, then it will have an impact on the performance. If you are on WordPress, Platinum SEO Plugin makes it easy to handle this.

Visitors to pages on your Website expect to see content that satisfy their search intent. But when they encounter 404 errors, they would obviously abandon the website and look for information on other websites. Over a period of time, this can severely impact the traffic to your website. Search engines like Google and Bing who send a bulk of the traffic to most websites on the internet, might also start to lower the ranking of those pages on their SERPS. This happens due to higher number of referred visitors bouncing off your website. This might impact the website as a whole. The search engines might devalue a majority of pages on your website as they no longer provide its visitors with the content they expected to see.

As the main objective of SEO is to satisfy the search intent of visitors that search engines refer to your website, with content they intended to see, 404 Errors for pages that were earlier providing the relevant content would severely impact the search traffic. This happens due to search engines removing those pages from their SERPs, as their crawlers see that they no longer exist and hence their URLs are broken or dead.

Do not confuse this with the fact that 404 Errors, in general, do not have any impact on Search Engine rankings. If the 404s are due to URLs that never existed on your website, then such 404 errors will not have any impact on SEO or ranking in SERPs. A majority of 404 errors are of this nature and you can safely ignore them.

However, when the 404 errors are due to pages that were previously existing on your website and also ranking well on search engines, thereby receiving visitors referred by them, then such 404 errors might have an impact on the search traffic to your website. This will happen only if they are not redirected to relevant content provided on other URLs of your website. However, this impact will be felt only if the 404 Errors of this nature are large in numbers or when the deleted or moved pages were earlier getting the bulk of the search engine traffic to your website.

In general, a dead link or a broken link is bad for usability and SEO as it wastes the precious Crawling time of Search Engine Bots, which otherwise would have been used for discovering new pages.

How to find and fix 404 Errors?

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Now that we have seen how a 404 Error occurs, let us now see how these 404 errors can be found or tracked and fixed on WordPress websites.

Platinum SEO WordPress Plugin V2.0.6 has now enabled its users to find and log all 404 errors on their WordPress blog or Website. These include errors encountered by both users and bots. To enable tracking and logging of 404 errors using Platinum SEO Plugin for WordPress, go to Platinum SEO and Social Pack->SEO->Permalinks Settings page of the plugin.

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Scroll down to the section on 404 Errors. Under this section, enable the “Track 404 Errors” setting to monitor all 404 errors on the website.

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By default, all 404 errors are tracked and logged in the database. These include errors encountered by all users including humans and bots. But on large sites, with a good amount of traffic, the 404 errors logged might grow pretty big in a short period of time. It will then be difficult to review and manage your 404 errors. It is therefore highly recommended to limit the number of errors logged to, say, 1000. This can be achieved by setting the number of rows to 1000 against the setting “Limit 404 Log to” under the section on 404 Errors. After you have reviewed and taken appropriate action to manage your 404 errors, you may delete them all and let any new errors be logged.

You can also limit logging of Google 404 errors and Bing 404 Errors i.e. errors encountered by search engine bots like Googlebot and Msnbot respectively. The advantage of limiting the logging of 404 errors to Google and Bing is you can limit your corrective actions to these errors alone. All genuine HTTP 404 Errors encountered by human visitors, while navigating to URLs of non-existing pages on the website, may be ignored.

So you may now wonder what actions you might take on these 404 errors. Platinum SEO plugin lets you take any one of the following actions.

  1. You may choose to ignore an error if it is a genuine 404 error i.e. Page does not Exist. Many 404 errors are of this nature. These are errors returned with a status of “404 Page does not Exist” by your server or CMS like WordPress.
  2. You might want to issue “410 Gone” status code for some 404 Errors as these are usually caused by CSS or Javascript files of plugins that you have discontinued to use. In these cases, if you are certain that you aren’t going to use those plugins again, you may issue this 410 status code to search engine bots, as it would then expedite the retiring of those URLs. This would help you to save the search engine’s valuable crawling time and resources which would be instead used for discovering new pages or in crawling updated pages on the site.
  3. You may also choose to redirect some URLs that return 404 status to highly relevant pages on the site. This would ensure that visitors get the information they were looking for, thereby satisfying their search intent. You may also thereby redirect link juice, if any, from the URLs that return a 404 status to the URLs of the relevant pages they were redirected to.

Now, let us see how these can be done using Platinum SEO WordPress Plugin. You can track and fix 404 erors by navigating to the submenu “Manage 404 Errors” under the menu “Platinum SEO and Social Pack” in WordPress Admin interface. You can alternatively manage these under “Platinum SEO 404 Manager” of “Tools” section in WordPress.

If you choose to ignore the error and continue to issue a 404 status code for the logged URL, you need not have to do anything. You might simply select the URL or a set of URLs and delete them by choosing “Delete Permanently” in the Bulk Actions dropdown and clicking the “Delete” button. These errors are permanently deleted from the Platinum SEO 404 Error Log. Note that these errors would continue to be logged in future as well.

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Creaate a Custom 404 Error Page

If you decide to continue issuing a HTTP 404, ensure that you present your users a useful Custom 404 template. This is usually present as 404.php in your WordPress theme folder. Design your Custom 404 Error Page in a way that makes it easy for your users to search the website on the 404 Error Page. You can also link to your archives page or HTML sitemap from your 404 page. There are many cool 404 Error Page Designs on the internet. There are also several funny Custom 404 Pages that evoke a smile, if not laughter. You can get ideas from them to design your own Custom 404 Page.

You can create a 404 Page as either 404.php or 404.html template file and place it in the root directory. But to ensure that this template file is used instead of the one provided by your theme, Open the .htaccess file in the root directory and enter ‘ErrorDocument 404 /404.html’ or ‘ErrorDocument 404 /404.php’ and save the changes. Your users will then be presented with the error page generated using the template file in the root directory.

When the size of your custom 404 Error Page is less than 512 bytes, browsers like google Chrome and Internet Explorer will display their own “friendly” 404 Error Pages. Google chrome will render a Google 404 Page with alternative suggestions generated by their Google algorithms.

Change HTTP Error Status Code from 404 to 410 in WordPress

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If you decide to change the status code to 410 for any URL, to expedite its retirement, you may choose the URL or a few of them and Select “Update Status” in the “Bulk Actions” dropdown. Then select “Update Status to 410” in the adjacent dropdown and click the “Update” button.

Once this is done, all your users, including search engine bots, will be presented with “410 Gone” status code instead of “404, Page Not Found” status. Though Platinum SEO WordPress ensures that this status code is issued, it presents the same 404 template to your visitors. So design it in a manner that is suitable for both 404 and 410 HTTP Error Codes.

Redirect the broken Page URLs on your website to a more appropriate page

IF a link pointing to a page identified by an URL gets rotten due to such URL having changed or the page content having moved to another URL, the link is said to be broken or dead. If you decide to redirect a HTTP 404 Error Dead URL (or a group of such URLs) on your Website to a more appropriate and relevant page, select those URLs and choose “Add Redirection” in the Bulk Actions dropdown. Then specify a URL to “redirect to” and an appropriate “redirection method”. Finally, click “Add New” button to add the Redirection to the target URL, for all the selected HTTP Error 404 URLs. Alternatively, you can click “Create Redirection” for any 404 Error URL, specify the URL to “redirect to” and an appropriate redirection method. You can repeat the above, for any other 404 URL on every page of the 404 Error Log.

Platinum SEO WordPress Plugin also lets you find and fix 404 errors easily, by providing the following:

1) More details about the the 404 or 410 Errors like Requested Page URL or Path, IP Address of the visitor, User agent of the visitor and the created date and last logged date of the error.

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2) Screen Options like the number of rows per page in the 404 Error Log.

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4) Filters to filter the error types and take appropriate action.

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5) Ability to filter the rows of errors on the basis of one or more words in the request path or requested Page URL.

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6) Platinum SEO WordPress Plugin also provides an auto redirect option. This, when enabled in Settings, automatically redirects a URL on the WordPress Website to the more appropriate Page. For example, this often happens when the Permalink Structure has been changed in your wordPress Site. This will also happen when you change the URL Schema from HTTP to HTTPS.

When you change the Post Name or slug, WordPress automatically takes care to redirect them to the URL with the latest Post Name or Slug. Thus, any change in Permalink Structure or Slug name in WordPress is automatically taken care of. Auto Redirection is done using the HTTP Status “301 Moved Permanently”.

You can also accomplish any HTTP Redirection in WordPress using Platinum SEO 404 Manager and Platinum SEO Redirection Manager. This will override the automatic redirection for any URL that has changed.

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